IMAGINE this. A place where two children are trying to survive, without any grown-ups. Food is scarce and communication cut off. The powerful section of society — Bigtown people — have turned cannibals, resembling zombies, and devour Smalltown people who they consider inferior. The rules of survival are simple and brutal. If you move, they’ll come for you. If you speak, they’ll come for you. But Bigtown people don’t eat those who eat others. That makes Smalltown people attack their own. All this, of course, is not without an agenda. Driving through Smalltown as it burns, Bigtown’s councilman sells the dream: Bigtown, which was once the state capital, will regain its glory.
In his short film, which is part of the horror anthology Ghost Stories on Netflix, director Dibakar Banerjee creates a layered narrative set in a dystopian and lawless world. It reflects the realities of class oppression and majoritarianism, positioning “us” against “them”. The most political of the four films in the anthology, it questions the co-option of progressive forces and authoritarianism. “A horror film should always be something else, along with being horror. As a country, we are afraid. For a society that has learned to shut up in fear, I think it’s the right time for a film like this,” says Banerjee.
For years, the mandate of entertainment has held back Indian filmmakers from darker tales. Horror films, especially, were long dismissed as B-grade, sleazy movies. That’s changing. Movies such as Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis (2019), Ashwin Saravanan’s Game Over (2019), Prosit Roy’s Pari (2018), Stree (2018) written by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK and Rahi Anil Barve-directed Tumbbad (2018) have brought new thrills to the genre. In recent years, international movies like It Follows (2014), The Witch (2015), A Quiet Place (2018) and The Lighthouse (2019), which avoid formulaic horror for scripts rich with allegory and politics, have also shown the way. For instance, Jordan Peele’s 2017 debut Get Out explored racial tension to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year. “Zombie movies were always B-movies until someone like Danny Boyle or Jim Jarmusch (The Dead Don’t Die, which opened the Cannes Film Festival last year) made them. In Twenty Days Later (2002), Boyle did not call the scary creatures zombies or undead. Instead, the film says they were infected by the rage virus. He was talking about the anger building up in people,” says Nidimoru.
In India, the genre began to let go of its tried-and-tested tropes some years ago. In Stree, Nidimoru and DK, who had earlier made the zombie comedy Go Goa Gone (2013), turned the concept of chudails on its head, and sent its male characters running for cover and clothes. “Stree has a strong subversive message. Yet, we tried not to be preachy. We tried to do a role-reversal in which men are scared,” says Nidimoru. Pari was a moody tale about a girl born out of rape during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.
The films have only gotten more unsettling. In Aamis (2019), for instance, Hazarika gave a man-woman love story a dark, almost macabre, twist. “Many people thought there were in for a nice romantic story. Suddenly, you twist it and turn it into a horror film. Now, the audience is trapped. They have invested in the story. It is a horrid manipulation. That’s how life is. You think everything is rosy but suddenly something happens and everything goes for a toss,” he says. Both Nidimoru and DK agree that horror and comedy are the most effective and basic genres. Yet, horror can score over comedy. “You may not laugh at my jokes but you will be scared if someone startles you. Now, imagine if you are putting a little idea into it — something subversive or a subtext. Like adding some vitamin to it, it becomes a great capsule” says DK.
In his essay, Why We Crave Horror Movies, written for Playboy, Stephen King says: “When we pay out four or five bucks and seat ourselves at tenth-row centre in a theatre showing a horror movie, we are daring the nightmare. Why? Some of the reasons are simple and obvious. To show that we can, that we are not afraid, that we can ride this rollercoaster.” For long, India did not have many takers for this rollercoaster. Horror films did succeed in different periods — from Mahal (1949), Woh Kaun Thi (1964), Bees Saal Baad (1962) and Jaani Dushman (1979) to Raat (1992), Raaz (2002) and Ek Thi Daayan (2013). But it is with Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1972) that Ramsay Brothers started their low-budget scream-fests.
Darwaza (1978), known as India’s first creature horror movie, gave them a taste of big success. Their horror factory churned out over 30 movies, including Purana Mandir (1984), Bandh Darwaza (1988) and Veerana (1990). They had a unique “no star, no car” policy. Their cast and crew took the local bus to shooting locations. Their films were mostly shot in and around government guesthouses in Mahabaleshwar. In his book, Don’t Disturb the Dead (2017, HarperCollins India), Shamya Dasgupta quotes Tulsi Ramsay in an interview: “Places where the trains don’t stop, that’s where our business was.”
In the 1990s, Ram Gopal Varma shifted gears from action films to make Raat, about a college student possessed by a spirit. The same year, Mahesh Bhatt directed Junoon, inspired by An American Werewolf in London (1981). Both these directors went on to make several horror films in the years that followed.
Hazarika offers two possible reasons for why Indians did not warm up to the genre. “In the 1950s and ’60s, it was a new country. There was a compulsion to package traditional values. More horror films are coming out today as the times are cynical,” he says. He also believes that the genre only deepens the possibilities of cinema. “Most of human art is about aspiring to project human beings as some kind of godly figures. We all know that’s not true. Darker emotions such as disgust and fear are valid, too. What better way to express them than the controlled environment of a cinema hall,” says Hazarika.
Tamil writer-director Mysskin, who had made Yuddham Sei (2011), Anjathe (2008) and Pisaasu (2014), agrees that Indians are fixated with love stories. “But love stories are only a small part of our life. As a society, we are asked to ignore those things which are dark. When we go into the dark side of human beings, you find something that unsettles you,” he says. It is the exploration of human psyche and behaviour that interests Mysskin, who counts Shakespearean tragedies and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) as his major inspirations. For Prosit Roy, making his directorial debut with a horror movie was a conscious decision. “While making a horror film, you get to experiment a lot, be it in terms of colour or camera to create a mood. As a first-time filmmaker, I thought that would be a good way of showcasing my capabilities,” says Roy, who grew up reading a fair amount of horror literature in Bengali.
For now, there seems to be a steady flow of horror content. Banerjee reiterates that Indian filmmakers have taken a long time to have fun with this genre but now they are open to it. Zoya Akhtar wants to make a full-fledged horror film if she gets a good script. Hazarika will be tweaking a horror script that he wrote 10 years ago since a producer is keen on it. Roy wants to make another one in future. “I will take elements from our literature and culture or what’s happening in our country. That’s how you connect with the audience,” says Roy.